PROFILE: The Hand-Made’s Tale / ChithraEG / Sushma Sabnis
Creating her monumental stone sculptures, while simultaneously nurturing saplings to create her organic farm with the same hands, artist Chithra EG strikes that rare balance between feminism and femininity, observes Sushma Sabnis
A graduate from the RLV college of Music, Dance and Visual Art, artist-sculptor Chithra EG comes from a background in carpentry as a paternal inheritance and chooses to take it further through her drawings, sculptural and performance art practices.
There is a kind of energy which exudes from Chithra’s sculptures, it is an energy which comes undefined or unbiased and is completely self generated. The works therefore stand bereft of any obvious lineages which could dilute the experience of viewing it. Why this feature is so important today, is because we live in times where images and imageries hold our attention hostage in every aspect of our viewing experiences, sometimes even replacing our own experience with an imagined or projected one from somebody else’s life like a borrowed memory. This creates a kind of mental, visual and coerced superimposition within the evolution of discourses on visual art and visual culture. Evolution is not a linear process thus there are numerous factors which contribute, deter or even stop its progression. So when we look at Chithra’s works, we encounter a slightly changed perception of things like the human body, a subject which she has been exploring for a long time now through her works.
In her work titled, ‘Intimate Debaters‘ modelled probably on herself, there is something about the expression of the heads, in that they are compassionate and nearly similar feature-wise and the gender differences seem deliberately underplayed. It is seen that sculptors often choose to highlight and even exalt the physical attributes in gendered human figures, where that in itself becomes the premise to address the work of art from a singularly masculine or feminine lens; Chithra often underplays this aspect in her works. In fact, some of her large scale monolithic mythological works are anthropomorphic in nature yet have an ambiguity as far as gender is concerned.
In today’s times, gender definitions are mired in controversy as the society remains openly divided between acceptance or rejection of it. In such a scenario, the works of the artist become relevant as in they employ subtle nuances to hint at the mushrooming issues of gender. It is often seen in depiction of angelic apparitions in medieval art, where the angel is devoid of gender classifications and much of it is left to the viewer’s derivative intent. While Chithra eschews such definitions, her protagonists stand at the brink of a choice of gender, yet complete within themselves. We see a femininity in the male form and a masculinity in the female form as an inevitable balance which she formulates. These beings are not hermaphrodites, but they reflect the inner subliminal states of human existences invariably cloaked by the biological stamp of nature. However, in Chithra’s works, this is more than a physical attribute and delves much deeper into the psyche of a human being.
In a telephonic interview (with a language barrier firmly in place), Chithra tries to explain why her human sculptures are human first and gendered if need be. For eons, the indoctrination of specific gender roles of women and men, cut out for specific activities has been adhered to by most of humanity. While feminism has over decades successfully punctured holes into the large vat of patriarchy, the vat keeps filling up rather than draining out. However while we now have multiple feminist discourses which range from male-hating to bra-burning to the fight for equal opportunities/rights/wages for women and all marginalised individuals, the battle rages on sometimes silently and at times vociferously, constantly forming schisms and contradictions within the discourse itself.
Women artists over the world have reclaimed their bodies and continue doing so subverting the male gaze which is a marker of patriarchal dominion. In spite of centuries of failed attempts we have seen the emerging face of the bold feminist who could want a marriage, a home, a family and a spectacular career which ensures her livelihood and more importantly maintain her dignity, simultaneously warding off patriarchal expectations. Chithra comes from that league of thoughtful feminists. ‘I also love cooking and looking after my home, I am not a tomboy, but I do not subscribe to rigid gender roles slated out in society, women are not weak in any sense’ she asserts.
There is something in the way this sculptor works with her hands; of course everybody works with their hands, but in Chithra’s case the hands become an extension of her ideologies and her thinking process. One would find her carving away a large monolithic block of stone with an electric saw and not help but feel a little intimidated. Why this visual becomes all the more relevant is that few women sculptors choose the medium of stone to create artworks and at such large scales. Chithra brings in a much needed balance to this male dominated section of sculpting art practices.
When I said earlier that the artist works with her hands, one cannot ignore the paintings and existential sculptural portrayals in fibreglass, metal and wood. In her 2015 series called ‘Abreaction’ Chithra had documented her reaction to the complexities faced as a young woman, and the issues of survival as a sculptor and artist or issues which occupied her mind. ‘Abreaction’ had a suite of works which portray Chithra’s open refusal of society’s prescribed gender roles upon her. The body becomes the lexicon, the hair is publicly shorn off as a conscious performance art piece and accompanied by the delicate charcoal drawings in which she pokes holes in the limiting walls of perception to peek beyond, like the protagonist of ‘The Truman Show’. Littered on the floor of this fabricated, safe, biosphere for the ideal ‘girl child’ are broken dolls and defied identity expectations from a woman, discarded as a skin and heralding an end to the age of innocence. In another work from the same suite, the artist sits on a planet from the solar system while the galaxies of planets revolve around her, like she owns the universe, she defines it not as a female, but as a human who fathoms it and is in control of it.
As was noted earlier, Chithra does not reject femininity, she just chooses not to be typecast into strict female roles dictated by socio-political or cultural diktats like barbie doll, dutiful wife, sacrificial mother, dominatrix, etc. However, for Chithra, the roles she plays become her art work and art practice. In the times of pandemic lockdown, sitting in a remote corner of Kerala, coping with the loss of her father, she follows in his footsteps to reclaim his legacy and keep alive his passion for farming. In a video recorded by her husband, Ananthan, Chithra is seen plant/tree-gazing, looking at the plants which her father left behind and experiencing a ‘forest bath’. A part of Japanese culture, forest bathing plays an important role in restoring fluctuating energies to normal states, both physiologically and psychologically.
In carrying forward her father’s passion for growing plants and trees, the masculine act of the sculptor who carves a six feet block of stone to instill life into it, delicately cups the dainty saplings, ensuring its survival. With a precise focus on growing organic vegetables in her backyard, this sculptor puts aside her chisel and hammer to pick up the shovel and watering can. When one considers this drastic change of image of a person sculpting and then the gently nurturing a plant life, one comes face to face with an identity which is balanced and undefined. What we are looking at is the humane side of the individual. An unbiased, productive and immensely creative force.
Chithra sends in some of her water colour paintings created during the lockdown and they immediately mirror this aspect of her. Three women with tonsured heads gaze at the viewer as an intense retelling of the three muses. The strength exudes from their eyes and the unflinching and determined gaze. In another work, two women, sit across each other holding hands, and creating the home/the abode. It is quite like a Rorschach ink print, and it could possibly mean that one of them is the artist herself, and the other, that fertile force of creativity and regeneration, Nature.
There is a cultural, political and personal relationship one has with their hair and it attributes to the perception and definition of Identity. Chitra’s works delve into some aspect of the discourses about hair politics which one would find in many black cultural / feminist writings of say, Kobena Mercer or Chimamanda Adiche in recent times, who have written about the black identity and hair, the visual culture which revolves around it, the burden of beauty and its discriminatory hierarchies and prejudices therein. Chithra’s addressal of the aspects of women’s hair, its religious/cultural/geo-political/gender-related identity, along with her own personal narratives regarding hair, create an algorithm of rewriting of the norm that south Indian women usually have long tresses or the notion that those tresses are the definition of her beauty as compared to other Indian women; or even the notion that any women ought to have long tresses at all. Such intricate narratives culled from archaic recesses of patriarchy, openly addressed, inform the silent feministic works of sculptor Chithra EG, even as she metamorphoses into mother Nature to tend to her flourishing vegetable garden.
(Images courtesy the Artist and Facebook)